Are charter schools a problem?

Illustration by Sarah DeMercurio

It would appear there is a war on education and no other institution is feeling the pain more than the public school systems. On Thursday September 19th, Michigan House Democrats voted alongside their Republican colleagues to pass a plan for k-12 funding. What seems like picture perfect bipartisanship soon revealed typical wheeling and dealing that ultimately resulted in a subpar budget. While special education would see an increase in funding, provision that would see a $50 per high school student increase removed by Republicans. While this $50 per student increase is far from satisfactory, when you have a struggling school system, any increase is helpful. This provision lead to several democrats casting a ‘NO’ vote. The reason? They felt Republicans had this provision removed because it would negatively affect charter schools. Since the majority of charter schools do not operate at high school level, passing a budget that would increase funding for high school students means money from the education budget would not reach charter schools. This led me to question how beneficial or damaging charter schools really are to the education system.

Since Betsy DeVos was appointed Secretary of Education by Donald Trump back in 2016, charter schools have been highlighted as a weapon in the war on public education. DeVos, a proponent of school choice, vouchers, and charter schools, was assumed to be on a mission to ensure the public school system would continue to fail. School vouchers and charter schools were being accused of siphoning much needed dollars from already struggling public schools. But when the idea of charter schools was first introduced in the 1980’s, it was an idea brought forth by Democrats. The first bill for charters was carried out by Minnesota Democrats in 1991. Since then, the teachers unions fought back and defending public education has seemed like a Democrat issue where pushing for school privatization became a Republican issue. This was certainly my impression, until current presidential candidate Andrew Yang made it abundantly clear he was in favor of charter schools. Or to quote Mr. Yang from the most recent Democratic debate, he is “pro good school.”

Admittedly, I was purposely not paying attention to the democratic race until at least half of the candidates dropped out. So, it really wasn’t until this last debate that I knew much of anything about Andrew Yang. It wasn’t until the topic of education arose that he really won my attention. Yang spoke about raising teacher wages and reducing the emphasis on standardized testing, saying the tests do not reflect the character of students. It’s hard to disagree with that, but why don’t we just focus on fixing our already established public school system? From Yang’s website:

It’s been demonstrated that teacher quality is the key factor in student success, and paying teachers more is an effective way to get more talented people into the classroom. My friend, Zeke Vanderhoek, started a charter school that manages to pay teachers $125,000 a year on the budget of a normal school. Not surprisingly, his school has great teachers and outstanding outcomes. We should reduce layers of administration in schools and apply the money to pay teachers at higher levels, particularly those who have proven track records and results.

Does this not sound as though he is blaming teachers for poor performance? As the daughter of a now retired high school teacher, I am well aware of the changes and challenges teachers were forced to deal with; No Child Left Behind, Standardized Testing, larger classrooms, CommonCore, so on and so forth. It is not the fault of the teachers. Yang accused Elizabeth Warren of being in bed with teacher’s unions. The fact that he attacked a union should raise a red flag for any left leaning voter. Charter school teachers are not unionized and that may be why so many more republicans embrace them. Yang should be trying to strengthen the union, not dismantle it.

I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Innovation Hub regarding charter schools. In this episode, Kara Miller interviewed David Osborn, director of Reinventing America’s School’s Program, and Chester Finn, a former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and president emeritus of the Fordham Institute. Both had similar opinions on charter schools. Anyone can start a charter school. They are less regulated. They are schools of choice so you can opt in if you feel your child will benefit more from the charter school as opposed to the traditional district, and the curriculum can be structured in a way your community would benefit most. If the school fails, they close but if they succeed, more schools open and follow that structure.

Let’s take into consideration this idea of closing schools because they are failing. There is a sense of security with public schools. Unless you move or decide to place your children into a private school, your child/children will always know where they are headed next. I certainly did. I knew I was going to be attending Warren Woods Middle School and after that, Warren Woods Tower High School. Even if you were to move — and I had a number of friends move either in middle school or high school — that school district my friends or family moved to would be the district they would go on to graduate from. Charter schools don’t offer that same sense of security. Finn said it himself, “If they fail, we close them. If they succeed, we expand them and replicate them.” That might be good for the founder and/or CEO’s bottom line, but what about the affect on the children? Who’s to say the next charter school they attend won’t be a failure and close as well? I imagine this would deny that child a sense of stability that a child needs at such a young age and wouldn’t that negatively affect them?

Finn states charter schools are school’s of choice. They are a not assigned to the children. You opt in to them because you think they offer you or your child a better opportunity than the traditional district. Charter schools are publicly funded so there is no tuition, but they are independently operated. This leads me to ask, if we are giving tax-payer money to charter schools that claim they can operate better than public schools, why don’t we simply invest into the public school system and restructure them? Aren’t charter schools taking money away from public schools, ultimately hurting these already struggling schools? Osborne says that is impossible. When a child moves to a different school the money does not stay with that school, that money goes with the child. When asked if that still negatively affects the school losing a child to a charter school, Osborn then stated, ” It doesn’t change the numbers wildly.”

Osborne was then asked about his daughter, who had worked at a charter school in New Orleans. According to Osborne, this charter school was in a very poor community and predominantly African American. The biggest issue was the undermining of teachers. For instance, a fight would break out in classroom and students would be sent to the discipline dean. Instead of following the proper disciplinary procedures, the dean would send the kids back to class and nothing would get resolved. The school would end up losing a number of teachers due to this malfeasance. But if you ask a traditional public school teacher about their experiences, you will hear the same complaint. So when we argue that charters are helping with education by being able to offer a better opportunity, Osborne’s example of his daughter’s experience leads me to aurgue it has nothing to do with the charter school itself and more about the amount of money the school district has. If you compare the Utica School district, a local district here in Metro Detroit, to the Detroit Public School district, the differences are night day. Not only is the Utica School district predominantly white, it is also surrounded by more money. More than half of school funding comes from property taxes. The rest is covered by fundraisers or donations. If the average home value in Macomb Township is over $300,000 and the average home value in Detroit is around $50,000, Detroit schools are left to fight tooth and nail for any additional funding. So, any donations or fundraisers that school district might rely on suffers when children are pulled away from these districts and placed into charter schools. The Detroit School system was set up to fail a long time ago, and that unfortunately stems from white flight that we still see today.

The majority of charter schools are non-profit public schools, but are they truly non-profit? Due to their being granted full autonomy to operate, there are a couple of loopholes which would allow a “non-profit” charter to profit. For one, management companies are often used to help staff the charter schools. Take Huron Academy here in Southeast Michigan. Huron Academy is one of several charter schools founded by Ferris State University. Their website states they do not offer medical benefits because they staff the academy through a third party. That third party is CS Partners Solution out of Southfield, Michigan. CS Partner Solutions has been hired by 19 charter schools throughout Southeast Michigan and provides administrative and operational needs including staffing and financial services such as payroll. When a management company is hired by a charter school, furnishings, books, and any equipment necessary to operate are technically owned by that management company. If the school goes under, the management company has those assets to cash in on.

Another way to make money off charter schools would be in real estate. Huron Academy purchased a 30 acre parcel of land — with cash — for their second location in Clinton Township. Real estate is another great way to profit fro your non-profit charter. Real estate for charter schools is becoming a hot commodity, and founders are willing to pay top dollar for the right parcel. Since anyone can open a charter school, it is safe to say that if you operated a management company or real estate investment firm, you could technically open a charter school and hire your for-profit company to operate the school or receive some hefty interest payments off the land purchased for the school all at tax payers expense.

The debate over charter schools is likely to be one to continue for some time to come. With charters receiving support from both political parties, we will most likely continue to see caps being lifted and funding increases, all while our public school district continue to be ignored. This is not how the future of education should look. Instead of

We need a secretary of education who is willing to invest in the already established public school system. The system needs an overhaul of sorts. The teachers unions need to restructure if not form new ones. Curriculum must adapt to the changing times but with teacher input. This is where it

It would appear there is a war on education and no other sector is feeling the pain more than the public school systems. On Thursday September 19th, Michigan House Democrats voted alongside their Republican colleagues to pass a plan for k-12 funding. What seems like picture perfect bipartisanship soon revealed typical wheeling and dealing that ultimately resulted in a subpar budget. While special education would see an increase in funding, a provision that would see a $50 per high school student increase was removed by Republicans. While this $50 per student increase is far from satisfactory, when you have a struggling school system, any increase is helpful. This provision lead to several Democrats casting a ‘NO’ vote. The reason? They felt Republicans had this provision removed because it would negatively affect charter schools. Since the majority of charter schools do not operate at high school level, passing a budget that would increase funding for high school students means money from the education budget would not reach charter schools. This leads one to question how beneficial or damaging charter schools really are to the education system.

Since before Betsy DeVos was appointed Secretary of Education by Donald Trump back in 2016, charter schools have been viewed as a weapon in the war on public education. DeVos, a proponent of school choice, vouchers, and charter schools, was assumed to be on a mission to ensure the public school system would continue to fail. School vouchers and charter schools were being accused of siphoning much needed dollars from already struggling public schools. But when the idea of charter schools was first introduced in the 1980’s, it was an idea brought forth by Democrats. The first bill for charters was carried out by Minnesota Democrats in 1991. Since then, the teachers unions fought back and defending public education has seemed like a goal for Democrats where pushing for school privatization became a Republican issue. This was certainly my impression, until current presidential candidate Andrew Yang made it abundantly clear he was in favor of charter schools. Or to quote Mr. Yang from the most recent Democratic debate, he is “pro good school.”

Admittedly, I was purposely not paying attention to the democratic race until at least half of the candidates dropped out. So, it really wasn’t until this last debate that I knew much of anything about Andrew Yang. It wasn’t until the topic of education arose that he really won my attention. Yang spoke about raising teacher wages and reducing the emphasis on standardized testing, saying the tests do not reflect the character of students. It’s hard to disagree with that, but why don’t we just focus on fixing our already established public school system? From Yang’s website:

It’s been demonstrated that teacher quality is the key factor in student success, and paying teachers more is an effective way to get more talented people into the classroom. My friend, Zeke Vanderhoek, started a charter school that manages to pay teachers $125,000 a year on the budget of a normal school. Not surprisingly, his school has great teachers and outstanding outcomes. We should reduce layers of administration in schools and apply the money to pay teachers at higher levels, particularly those who have proven track records and results.

Does this not sound as though he is blaming teachers for poor performance? As the daughter of a now retired high school teacher, I am well aware of the changes and challenges teachers were forced to deal with; No Child Left Behind, Standardized Testing, larger classrooms, CommonCore, so on and so forth. It is not the fault of the teachers. Yang accused Elizabeth Warren of being in bed with teacher’s unions. The fact that he attacked a union should raise a red flag for any left leaning voter. Charter school teachers are not unionized and that may be why so many more republicans embrace them. Yang should be trying to strengthen the union, not dismantle it.

I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Innovation Hub regarding charter schools. In this episode, Kara Miller interviewed David Osborn, director of Reinventing America’s School’s Program, and Chester Finn, a former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and president emeritus of the Fordham Institute. Both had similar opinions on charter schools. Anyone can start a charter school. They are less regulated. They are schools of choice so you can opt in if you feel your child will benefit more from the charter school as opposed to the traditional district, and the curriculum can be structured in a way your community would benefit most. If the school fails, they close but if they succeed, more schools open and follow that structure.

Let’s take into consideration this idea of closing schools because they are failing. There is a sense of security with public schools. Unless you move or decide to place your children into a private school, your child/children will always know where they are headed next. I certainly did. I knew I was going to be attending Warren Woods Middle School and after that, Warren Woods Tower High School. Even if you were to move — and I had a number of friends move either in middle school or high school — that school district my friends or family moved to would be the district they would go on to graduate from. Charter schools don’t offer that same sense of security. Finn said it himself, “If they fail, we close them. If they succeed, we expand them and replicate them.” That might be good for the founder and/or management company’s bottom line, but what about the effect on the children? Who’s to say the next charter school they attend won’t be a failure and close as well? I imagine this would deny that child a sense of stability that a child needs at such a young age and wouldn’t that negatively affect them?

Then there’s the charter school lottery. These lottery systems are most known in New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C. where charter’s have apparently succeeded. For instance, In 2014, New City charters saw 69,000 students apply for about 18,600 open seats. But these schools have succeeded how and at what cost? And is the lottery really fair? If you have you a student who’s parents can afford the time to travel from school to school to apply for these lotteries, but a single mother working 3 jobs only has time to make it to one or two, who do you think stands a better chance at winning one of those lotteries? There is still a level of inequality here that we fail to address when we continue this idea that charter school’s are legitimate alternative.

Finn states charter schools are school’s of choice. They are a not assigned to the children. You opt in to them because you think they offer you or your child a better opportunity than the traditional district. Charter schools are publicly funded so there is no tuition, but they are independently operated. This leads me to ask, if we are giving tax-payer money to charter schools that claim they can operate better than public schools, why don’t we simply invest into the public school system and restructure them? Aren’t charter schools taking money away from public schools, ultimately hurting these already struggling schools? Osborne says that is impossible. When a child moves to a different school the money does not stay with that school, that money goes with the child. When asked if that still negatively affects the school losing a child to a charter school, Osborn then stated, ” It doesn’t change the numbers wildly.”

Osborne was then asked about his daughter, who had worked at a charter school in New Orleans. According to Osborne, this charter school was in a very poor community and predominantly African American. The biggest issue was the undermining of teachers. For instance, a fight would break out in the classroom and students would be sent to the discipline dean. Instead of following the proper disciplinary procedures, the dean would send the kids back to class and nothing would get resolved. The school would end up losing a number of teachers due to this malfeasance. But if you ask a traditional public school teacher about their experiences, you will hear the same complaint. So when we argue that charters are helping with education by being able to offer a better opportunity, Osborne’s example of his daughter’s experience leads me to argue it has nothing to do with the charter school itself and more about the amount of money the school district has. If you compare the Utica School district, a local district here in Metro Detroit, to the Detroit Public School district, the differences are night day. Not only is the Utica School district predominantly white, it is also surrounded by more money. More than half of school funding comes from property taxes. The rest is covered by fundraisers or donations. If the average home value in Macomb Township is over $300,000 and the average home value in Detroit is around $50,000, Detroit schools are left to fight tooth and nail for any additional funding. So, any donations or fundraisers that school district might rely on suffers when children are pulled away from these districts and placed into charter schools. The Detroit School system was set up to fail a long time ago, and that unfortunately stems from white flight that we still see today. Yes, I will go there. Racism has absolutely played a role in our struggling school system.

The majority of charter schools are non-profit public schools, but are they truly non-profit? Due to their being granted full autonomy to operate, there are a couple of loopholes which would allow a “non-profit” charter to profit. For one, management companies are often used to help staff the charter schools. Take Huron Academy here in Southeast Michigan. Huron Academy is one of several charter schools founded by Ferris State University. Their website states they do not offer medical benefits because they staff the academy through a third party. That third party is CS Partners Solutions out of Southfield, Michigan. CS Partner Solutions has been hired by 19 charter schools throughout Southeast Michigan and provides administrative and operational needs including staffing and financial services such as payroll. When a management company is hired by a charter school, furnishings, books, and any equipment necessary to operate are technically owned by that management company. If the school goes under, the management company has those assets to cash in on.

Another way to make money off charter schools would be in real estate. Huron Academy purchased a 30 acre parcel of land — with cash — for their second location in Clinton Township. Real estate is another great way to profit from your non-profit charter. Real estate for charter schools is becoming a hot commodity, and founders are willing to pay top dollar for the right parcel. Since anyone can open a charter school, it is safe to say that if you operated a management company or real estate investment firm, you could technically open a charter school and hire your for-profit company to operate the school or receive some hefty interest payments off the land purchased for the school all at tax payers expense.

The debate over charter schools is likely to be one to continue for some time to come. With charters receiving support from both political parties, we will most likely continue to see caps being lifted and funding increases, all while our public school districts continue to be ignored. This is not how the future of education should look. State governments are constantly undermining teachers by forcing curriculum they no nothing about onto teachers or finding ways to weaken the teacher’s unions. We need unions. We have much to thank for unions. The only reason to do away with a teacher’s union would be to end public education and force school privatization. Schools should not be run like businesses in the free-market. We need to leave behind the charter schools and focus on investing in our public school districts so they can receive the proper funding needed to keep up with the needs of the public. And for crying out loud, we need a secretary of education who actually knows a thing or two about teaching and isn’t just a lobbyist for school privatization.

I will leave you with a quote from Sam Chaltain’s book Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice.

Our democracy needs to be something we do, not something we have. When it comes to a nascent experiment like school choice, we have within us the capacity to turn an open marketplace of learning options into something creative and regenerative. But there is nothing automatic about it. Choice by itself leads to nothing.

Sam Chaltain

We are failing our children.

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